Verbs: Past Tense? Present?Writer's Web
by Melanie Dawson & Joe Essid
(printable version here)

General Advice

When you write an essay, an exam answer, or even a short story, you will want to keep the verbs you use in the same tense. Remember, moving from tense to tense can be very confusing.

eg. Mrs. Mallory sees her returning son and, in her excitement, twisted her ankle rather badly. Her sister calls the doctor immediately.

In this example, the verb "twisted" is the only verb that appears in the past tense. It should appear in the present tense, "twists," or the other verbs should be changed to the past tense as well. Switching verb tenses upsets the time sequence of narration.

"The Literary Present"

When you quote directly from a text or allude to the events in a story (as in a brief plot summary), you should use "the literary present." We write about written works as if the events in them are happening now, even though the authors may be long dead. Quoting an essay, you would write,

Annie Dillard wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when she lived in Virginia's mountains. In the book's chapter, "Seeing," Annie Dillard contends that "vision... is a deliberate gift, the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils" (17).

Here, both "wrote" and "lived" are in the past tense since they refer to Dillard's life, not her writings. "Contends," however, appears in a statement about Dillard's writing, so it is in the present tense.

When you write about fiction, you will also want to use the present tense.

At the end of Of Mice and Men, Lennie sees an enormous rabbit that chastises him, making him to think of George.

Mrs. Mallard, in "The Story of an Hour," whispers "'free, free, free!'" after learning of her husband's supposed death.

The above examples are a plot summary and a direct quotation, both of which use the literary present. You can remember to write about literature in the present tense because you are currently reading or thinking about it. Every time you open a book it seems as though the events are currently happening; every time you read an essay it is as though you are currently speaking to the writer.

Non-English Papers

If you are writing a paper in another subject, notably the sciences and social sciences, these rules will not necessarily apply. Check with your professor for guidelines in your course.

In history classes, for example, the events you are writing about took place in the past, and therefore you should use the past tense throughout your paper. However, if you are citing articles in the paper, as you probably should, then you should check with your professor to see if he or she would prefer that you use the literary present or the past tense when referring to these articles.

Back to 'Sentence Structure and Mechanics' or 'Using Sources'
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